1.6 The Contemporary Abyss

TASK: Read Simon Morley ‘Staring into the Contemporary Abyss’. Choose any body of work you feel explores the sublime. It may be a photographic project, a work of literature, cinema, or any other medium. Write at least 300 words describing how you believe the work you have selected relates to the sublime. Use Morley’s text to support your argument.

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto focuses in much of his work explicitly or implicitly on the transience of life,  the conflict between life and death and the known and unknown. He questions our attitudes to death in ‘Chamber of Horrors’ using photos of (now removed) waxworks of torture and execution from Madame Tussaud’s. His images of an ancient ‘installation’ of hundreds of Bodhisattvas in a Kyoto temple mirrors interestingly Gursky’s images of North Korean armies – are they also all the same? or individual souls?

Works like  ‘Seascapes’ and ‘Revolution’ give a sense of void – of being on a borderline or edge where we can no longer codify experience – as a fundamental prerequisite for a deeper sense of reality, serving to mediate between being and nothingness, and communicating through a condition of absence a heightened awareness of the self. He is particularly interested in boundaries between science and religion ‘In all this, I somehow feel we are nearing an era when religion and art will once again cast doubts upon science, or else an era when things better seen through to a scientific conclusion will bow to religious judgement.’ ‘There remains… a great divide between comprehending (i.e.explaining) the world and being able to explain what we ourselves are. And even then, what we can explain of the world is far less than what we cannot ― though people tend be more attracted by the unexplained.’ 

Other works like ‘architecture’ use photography as an expression of ‘time exposed’, or photographs serving as a time capsule for a series of events in time.  He pushes his old large-format camera’s focal length out to twice-infinity―with no stops on the bellows rail, the view through the lens was an utter blur. This gives a very eerie effect,  completely melting away many of the buildings in the process.

In Joe – a photograph of an outdoor sculpture, he looks at relationships between 2 and 3 dimensions, effects of light on memory. The sculpture has to be experienced by walking around and through it… Joe is different according to the time of the day, the season, and the viewer’s position. Using a photographic technique involving areas of extremely soft light and blurred darkness, he sculpts views that seem like aspects of visual memory.

Other works like Lightning Fields observe the effects of scientific processes like electrical discharges on photographic dry plates. He describes these as a desire to re-create the major discoveries of these scientific pioneers in the darkroom and verify them with my own eyes. But the effects are extremely beautiful – art produced by science.

Simon Morley main points

Romantic artists: irrational and frightening

Abstract expressionists:  Barnett Newman ( ‘The Sublime is Now’) and Mark Rothko.  an art possessing  depth and profundity beyond classical  ideas about beauty and aesthetics.

Pop and Conceptual Art and radical philosophers in France trying to understand aspects of human experience that seemed to lie beyond the controlling structures imposed by the status quo, to keep open a pathway leading to some kind of possibility of emancipation.

Morley’s  book  The Sublime: Documents of Contemporary Art distinguishes five different ways in which the word is now broadly used:

  • the unpresentable
  • transcendence,
  • terror,
  • the uncanny and
  • altered states of consciousness.

There are also two main contexts for such discussions: nature and technology. Linking all these: a desire to define a moment when social and psychological codes and structures no longer bind us, where we reach a sort of borderline at which rational thought comes to an end and we suddenly encounter something wholly and perturbingly other.

At the sublime’s core are experiences of self-transcendence that take us away from the forms of understanding provided by a secular, scientific and rationalist world view.  covert or camouflaged devices for talking about the kinds of things that were once addressed by religious discourses and nevertheless seem to remain pertinent within an otherwise religiously sceptical and secularised world.

” a transformative experience understood as occurring within the here and now. What we make of this experience, what value we give it, can take us in two very different directions, however. One re-envisages the self as existing in the light of some unnameable revelation arising in a gap between, on the one hand, a dull and alienating reality, and on the other an unmediated awareness of life. In contrast, there is a far more pessimistic conclusion that can be drawn, one that ends up as a resigned sense of inadequacy, in which we are made aware of our emotional, cognitive, social and political failure when faced with all that so blatantly exceeds us.”

Ultimately, the concept of the sublime must pose more questions than it answers

Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project 2003

Anish Kapoor’s huge maroon trumpet Marsyas 2002.  made of stretched PVC, managed to convey a more affirmative experience of the sublime – a kind of post-religious state of emotional transcendence in which, exactly because of the lack of ordered structures or codes, we feel a powerful sense of exaltation and release rather than fear. His work also serves to link discussions of the sublime to non- Western concepts. In an interview given several years ago, he declared that through the experience of void that is central to his art he sought to convey ‘a potential space, not a non-space’.

Miroslaw Balka’s dark container How It Is 2009, a huge steel structure with a vast dark chamber. ‘negative sublime’, destabilising and unnerving entering into a structureless and unsettling zone of inky blankness  (at least when there are no mobile phone lights being turned on) but simultaneously aware of merely experiencing an artwork in a museum.

Douglas Gordon,site-specific work Pretty much every word written, spoken, heard, overheard from1989…2010. nameless and imageless emotions,  Wordsworth’s ‘blank abyss’.

Korean artist Lee Ufan and Japanese photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, a sense of void – of being on a borderline or edge where we can no longer codify experience – is considered a fundamental prerequisite for a deeper sense of reality, serving to mediate between being and nothingness, and communicating through a condition of absence a heightened awareness of the self.

James Turrell, who uses light to dematerialise an environment and to propel the spectator into a state of sensory confusion that isn’t so much unsettling as ecstatic. Turrell, who is influenced by Quaker Christianity’s idea of divine light as well as by oriental concepts, declares that his work is involved in the ‘plumbing of visual space through the conscious act of moving, feeling out through the eyes’, and adds that the experience is ‘analogous to a physical journey of self as a flight of the soul through the planes’.

Gerhard Richter paintings looking like blurred photographs ‘ new sense of the sublime as something that gets squeezed out as an intangible and ambiguous supplement in the gap between these two different but related media’. large abstracts ‘seem merely to engage with the sublime in the more traditional and easily consoling sense of something that strives for the exalted effect’.

Luc Tuymans : thwarted transcendence in  deliberately drab paintings derived from photographs. Many of Tuymans’s works  refer to Nazism, in which sublime effects were exploited in order to inspire a nation to commit barbaric acts. Albert Speer’s Cathedrals of Light, constructed for the Nuremberg rallies, were frightening instances of the sublime in the hands of authoritarian politics

Andreas Gursky. series of large-scale photographs of intricately orchestrated mass public displays of the North Koreans – any discussion of the concept of the sublime should take into account its political implications.

French artist Philippe Parreno and his collaborators, dive into the depths of virtual reality by exploring how contemporary subjectivity is distorted and augmented through plugging into the digital. The artists copyrighted a digital animation character in order to ‘set her free’ to ‘live’ in ways not constrained by the strict regulations imposed by the usual conventions of cyberspace. Perhaps it is indeed to this new world, beyond the limits of the physical body and of time and space, that the sublime experience is now migrating.

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